Art Philanthropy Is Alive and Well…At Least in Manhattan

There are many games which one associates with the lives of those who are fortunate enough to spend much of their time at leisure. There are no competitors of moderate income taking part in the America’s Cup, for example. Yet an interesting piece which appeared in Vanity Fair yesterday on the game known as art collecting shows that there are some games which only the very, very comfortable are able to play. And that game has an important impact on both the art world and philanthropy.

The article in question theorizes that there is a war going on between the three most important art museums in New York City: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and The Whitney Museum of American Art.  More precisely, the piece suggests that there are power struggles among the various board members of these institutions, which are affecting the institutions themselves. The effort to preserve what is already there, while attracting more visitors to their collections so that what is sometimes termed “high art” remains relevant to younger generations, is an ongoing dilemma for many of these august bodies.

What seems particularly interesting or unusual is the idea that The Met is evolving to better reflect the ongoing history of art.  This is something which the Lauder family has moved along considerably with the donation of their collection of Cubist works. This among other artistic movements of the previous century was an area of acquisition which The Met had largely left to MoMA in the past, given their very different reasons for existing, If The Met is seeking to get into the Modern Art game now it might seem to have left it a bit late, but then again The Met is The Met.

In London of course there is a clear division of powers between the two largest art institutions of that city: The National Gallery and Tate (I still have difficulty in dropping the leading “The”.) If you are looking for Modern or Contemporary Art, you have to go south of the Thames, rather than to Trafalgar Square, in order to see it. Here in Washington, by contrast, although the Hirshhorn specializes in such things, the National Gallery also has Modern and Contemporary works in its possession. Local dictates seem to lead to inconsistent results when it comes to the honing and polishing of a particular institution’s holdings.

However the importance of recognizing these ongoing changes lies not so much in controversies over building expansions, board membership, or the like, but in the nature of the collections themselves. If a public or quasi-public institution holds fast to the idea that art is intended to educate and edify the public, then the choices which it makes in what to acquire and display tell us a great deal about not only the institution itself, but that institution’s perception of the community which it serves. That is where, sometimes, museums can lose their way, by forgetting their purpose.

Is the art museum becoming merely a place of entertainment, a charge levied by some against one of the institutions profiled in the Vanity Fair article? One could certainly look at the museum of today in that fashion. Perhaps they are viewed as a place where the discarded baubles of the dead are put out for the curious to admire, or a venue for holding swanky parties in luxurious surroundings. The counter to that argument, of course, is that art collections large and small have always been sought out by those who appreciate art, whether in the vast corridors of the former palaces of the Bourbons and Medici, or in grand country houses and estates which open their doors to visitors but still remain private residences for most of the year.

Rather perhaps the question which we ought to be asking when we see the evolution of art museums is one not of utility, but of intent. What is the goal of building up a collection of 20th century masterpieces in Manhattan, if not to keep such works hanging on the walls of a penthouse on the Upper East Side? Is it such a bad thing for someone who has been fortunate enough to succeed in this country, to share his good fortune with a major museum, for the pleasure and enlightenment of his fellow citizens?

When many of this country’s art institutions got their starts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were able to take advantage of the fact that the Old World was getting a bit decrepit and in need of American cash. Whereas most of the European art institutions have their origins in royal collections forcibly or otherwise appropriated from their former owners, in the U.S. it was the well-to-do who realized that they would have to voluntarily build such collections themselves, if there were to be comparable institutions for the benefit of the citizenry. Thus it occurred then, as it does today, that the magnates and financiers who built the original museums have their descendants at present in those who continue to benefit from the opportunities afforded those who are able to make the American dream a reality for themselves and their families, and in the process benefit their communities as well.

Many of the names have changed, as fortunes are won and lost and diluted, but the idea that something needs to be given back remains an essential component of the philanthropic spirit which created the art world as we know it in this country. When Leonard Lauder donated his Cubist collection to The Met, he thanked his children for being willing to give up part of their future inheritance – in the form of works of art estimated to be worth a total of over $1 billion – for the sake of enriching the collections of New York’s most important public educational institution. That says volumes about the state of artistic philanthropy in this country – or at least in Manhattan.

The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Not-So-Humble Vegetable

Now that the Northern Hemisphere is entering into Autumn, it’s that time of year when food is particularly on our minds.  Neighbors who cannot possibly eat all of the tomatoes and peppers they’ve grown are desperately looking to hand off their excess crops, rather than let them go to waste.  Fruits like peaches need preserving and canning, while apple picking season began just yesterday in many counties around DC.

The bounty of this time of year has inspired Western artists for millennia.  The cornucopias of the gods, tied to various ancient myths, are to be found in many examples of Ancient Greek and Roman statuary. Fruits and vegetables figure prominently in the work of Old Master painters such as Carlo Crivelli and the strange portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo.  In the 17th century, the Dutch and Spanish artists of the Golden Age often produced still life paintings featuring beautifully rendered produce.

Even alongside all of these examples however, it is hard to imagine topping the work of artist Patrick Laroche.  As a classically-trained sculptor, M. Laroche produces many things, from original pieces or restorations for the French national museums and palaces, to enlargements and reductions of existing sculptures, to exploring his own ideas in his personal work, which has a sensuous, Brancusi-like feel to it.  However the reason you need to know him in the context of this post is his current fascination, which lies in creating giant, colorful sculptures of vegetables, some of which have now been installed on exhibit at the Sofitel St. James in London.

Being somewhat of a magpie by nature, I was immediately drawn to the polished gleam of these works.  They are cast in bronze, stainless steel, or resin, and then coated in a high-gloss finish, giving them a colored shine, sometimes reflecting the vegetable’s actual color, sometimes not.  This makes the pieces stand out even more than they already would, just based on their gigantic size alone.

While historically, they are the sort of object that one could imagine a Renaissance prince commissioning for festivities surrounding a wedding or coronation, at the same time they are something a child with a great imagination would create, if he only knew how.  I think this childlike joy in creating the fantastic, in particular, is what makes them so charming: it prevents the pieces from becoming too totemic.  Moreover, M. Laroche’s motivation is celebration, as he told The Daily Telegraph, because he is passionate about gastronomy.  This seems a great way to celebrate the French national love of good food.

Even those of us who do not have the good fortune to be able to eat French food all the time can still admire, even smile or laugh, at work like this.  We can realize that we are very lucky indeed, in the Western world, to have so much good food to choose from in this season of plenty, particularly when so many around the world do not enjoy that luxury.  And while the realization of that fact should not put us off jarring our homemade marinara sauce or savoring the crispness of this year’s pears, perhaps it will also put us in mind of the fact that in sharing that bounty, we can truly demonstrate our gratitude for it.  M. Laroche’s sculptures are a wonderful reminder of how truly fortunate we are.

Patrick LaRoche

Sculptor Patrick Laroche in his Paris studio

 

 

 

Rose’s Turn: The Power of Painting with Pink

Ah, the time-honored summer art exhibition: when art galleries and dealers in big cities try to keep themselves from falling asleep out of boredom, waiting for customers to drop by.  The reader may not be aware, but from a business perspective, the selling of art is often as seasonal as is the selling of other commodities, from bikinis to snowplows. Just as art dealers in vacation areas tend to languish during the period between the end and the start of their area’s high season, so too galleries in urban areas often suffer from the doldrums during the summer vacations of their regular clientele.

To counteract this, a summer exhibition is a great way to generate some interest in what might otherwise be a period of lethargy.  The Royal Academy in London, for example, started hosting its annual Summer Exhibition way back in 1769, which over the centuries has proven to be a hugely profitable venture not only for the Royal Academy, but for the artists exhibited there and the galleries nearby.  The Academy gets a percentage of the proceeds of any of the works sold at the show, and the London art dealers rather than packing up and fleeing to the Rivera in search of their clients, will typically host their own, brief shows around the same time, so that potential collectors can drop by and see their works, as well.

Such is the case, I imagine, with the brief run of “Everything’s Rosy” at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown, which opened this past Friday.  The exhibition features a selection of works by a number of artists, all working in very different styles and with no thematic program, yet all are connected by their use of the color rose – or pink, depending on how you look at it, which of course for my Catholic readers brings back the old canard about the color of the priestly vestments for Gaudete and Laetare Sunday.  Appropriately enough, the opening reception for the show was accompanied by cocktails made with strawberries, rose sparkling wine, and Saint Germain.  My charming companion and I noted the refreshing recipe for future use, as we looked at the many types of painting on display, and chatted with one of the (always very gracious) gallery staff.

Pink is a color which today we often associate with the feminine – blue for boys, pink for girls – even though for centuries, that formula was reversed.  In an article about child-rearing in the venerable “Ladies’ Home Journal” published in June 1918, we read that when choosing a color for a baby’s clothing, outside of easy-to-bleach white, “the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”  One may also note that in traditional Catholic images of the Madonna and Child, the Virgin Mary is almost always depicted wearing blue, and there are many examples of the Christ Child wearing pink.

It is the boldness of pink as a color, much like the use of red, which tends to attract the eye; such a powerful shade can often completely dominate an image, unless the artist is careful.  What is appealing about the Susan Calloway show is how the selection of works speaks to a variety of tastes, but nothing hits you over the head with “PINK”, like walking into a child’s bedroom.  Yes, there are a few very charming, dare one say “pretty” images, but there are also some bold, textural pieces as well, which use pink in different ways.

Take for example an arresting painting by David Ivan Clark titled “Untitled (Still #69)”, a very horizontal work which features a gradation of color from pale gray to puce to black.  There is nothing “Hello Kitty” about this picture, and despite its substantial horizontality, it is a decidedly masculine-feeling piece.  Another work in the show, “Departures” by Janet Fry Rogers, features gleaming squares of silver leaf atop an underpainting of a deep, hot pink, reminding the viewer of the techniques employed in Medieval and Early Renaissance panel painting.  If, like this scrivener, you have certain magpie tendencies, you cannot help but be enthralled by the piece, so arresting is the juxtaposition of the bright undertone with the burnished, gleaming surface.

Arguably the star of the show is “Magnolia Swimwater” by Allison Hall Copley, a very large work on canvas which greets you as you enter the gallery.  Interestingly enough, the piece is framed, rather than stretched, leaving the unfinished edges of the piece exposed to look almost like rag paper.  The composition is a huge swirl of colors, a shower of bright pinks, oranges and blues against the plain white canvas.  Copley gives a wonderful sense of movement and flight to the painting, like a host of flower petals being caught up in a whirlwind and falling to earth again.

Although these three highlighted works are examples of different types of abstraction, those with an aversion to the non-representational need not fear. “Everything’s Rosy” additional features a number of charming, representational pieces, from artists such as the extremely talented landscape artist Ed Cooper, among others.  This is truly one of those bright and cheerful shows which has something for everyone, not only asking the visitor to consider pink in different ways, but also proving to be quite refreshing during yet another oppressively Washingtonian July.

“Everything’s Rosy” at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown runs from July 11th to July 22nd.

The wonderfully-textured "Departures" by Janet Fry Rogers,  looking great against the textured white brick walls at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown

The wonderfully textured “Departures” by Janet Fry Rogers,
looking great against the textured white brick walls at Susan Calloway Fine Arts in Georgetown